Schick Hydro Preview: Wests Tigers v Melbourne Storm
It might sound dramatic this early in the season, but Sunday afternoon is just about a must-win game for Wests Tigers, who are facing their fifth loss on the trot.
The season couldn't have started any better with back-to-back wins over the Warriors and Sea Eagles, but there have been few highlights in the month since.
A return to Leichhardt Oval on what should be a glorious Sunday afternoon could be just the tonic to help the Tigers bounce back from their last-start loss in Newcastle, but they’ll have to overcome a Storm side firmly entrenched in the top eight.
The Storm produced arguably their most complete performance of the season against the Bulldogs, but couldn't come away with the two competition points on Monday night.
The Tigers have been dealt a huge blow with skipper Aaron Woods set to miss 4-6 weeks after aggravating an ankle injury against the Knights last Sunday. His spot in the starting side has been taken by Ava Seumanufagai, while Joel Edwards, Jack Buchanan and Michael Chee-Kam join an extended bench.
Melbourne has its own concerns with Woods' Kangaroos teammate Will Chambers sidelined for 12-14 weeks with a fractured foot. The timing of the star centre's injury couldn’t be any worse with fellow backs Billy Slater, Curtis Scott and Jeremy Hawkins also in the casualty ward. Melbourne has yet to name a replacement, but Tohu Harris is expected to shift to centre.
Watch out Tigers: With roughly 40 per cent of games in 2016 being decided by a converted try or less, goal kicking has never been more important. Unfortunately for the Tigers, it's an area they’ve struggled in since the departure of Pat Richards. Mitch Moses has kicked just 13/23 to sit at 56.5 per cent for the season, while Jordan Rankin is 2/3 in 2016. On the other hand, Cameron Smith is one of the better kickers with 18/23 goals at 78.3 per cent. If it's a close game, goal-kicking accuracy could be the difference on the day.
Watch out Storm: There is a scary stat that suggests the Tigers are primed to run out winners on Sunday afternoon. Over the past few years, the Tigers have turned to their spiritual home ground to end losing streaks. In 2013, they ended a seven-game slide with a win over the Cowboys. They beat the Sharks in 2014 to end a six-game streak, and last year they knocked off the Storm to halt a five-game losing run. The Tigers head into this weekend's game on the back of four defeats, and if history is anything to go by, the Storm could be in trouble at Leichhardt.
Key match-up: Robbie Farah v Cameron Smith. Hard to go past the battle of the State of Origin hookers in what should be a mouth-watering representative entree. After missing the first three games through injury, Farah has been easing his way back into form, highlighted by a season-best 99 metres and 42 tackles (no misses) against the Knights in what was his first 80-minute performance of the year. Smith also produced his best game of 2016 with 51 tackles, three offloads and an early 40/20 against the Bulldogs. Both men have been slightly below their best attack-wise but should relish a dry track on Sunday.
The history: Played 26; Tigers 10, Storm 16. The Storm boast the superior overall head-to-head record, but Wests Tigers have dominated the meetings at Leichhardt Oval, winning eight of the 11 clashes. A James Tedesco double inspired the Tigers to a surprise 34-16 in the sides' only meeting in 2015 (incidentally at Leichhardt Oval).
What are the odds: The Wests Tigers are friendless in betting despite playing at home. They've ballooned from their early price of $2.10, although James Tedesco remains the most popular in the first try scorer market according to Sportsbet. Latest odds at Sportsbet
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein. Assistant referee: Adam Gee. Sideline officials: Nick Beashel and Ricky MacFarlane.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live coverage from 3:30pm. Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 4pm.
The way we see it: Leichhardt Oval often brings the best out of the Tigers, and they'll certainly need to bring their A-game if they are to beat the Storm who will be stinging after their lough loss on Monday night. The game could well come down to how the Storm handle attacking ace James Tedesco, who leads the NRL in tries and line breaks. If they can shut him down, expect the class of Melbourne's forwards to get them over the line. Storm by 7.